[Listen to the Audio] If you’re traveling north on US 165 from Lake Charles to Alexandria, Louisiana, you’ll see the billboard on your left in Oakdale. A man engulfed in flames is turning his anguished face toward a heaven so distant that neither he nor we can see it.
As I recall, the sign mentions neither a congregation nor a denomination. Whoever paid for the billboard seems to have thought that they were conveying the agreed-upon essence of the Christian message.
Sadly, plenty of Christians and non-Christians equate the Gospel with hell-avoidance. The hell-avoidance version of the Gospel goes like this:
Stop sinning. Believe that Jesus took the punishment for your sins. Go to heaven.
Or, the alternative is to keep sinning. Reject or even ignore Jesus. Go to hell. Well, strictly speaking, even if you’re a do-gooder like Ghandi or Anne Frank you still go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus before you die.
Well, this has always seemed a bit off to me.
I remember a conversation in my freshman religion class at St. Pius X Catholic High School in Atlanta. Our teacher—a nun whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten—asked us if we believed in hell. Could we reconcile the existence of hell with what we had been learning about the doctrine of God and God’s infinite grace?
Calmly and logically I suggested that, since the all-loving God seeks connection with everyone, and that God is omnipotent, God will win over every heart eventually.
Like any Episcopalian, reason plays a crucial role in my faith. My fourteen-year-old mind still needed a lot of theological reading and lacked the rigorous logical training I would eventually receive. But I’m convinced that I was on to something. The beating heart of our faith is the transforming power of God’s love. Fear of hell is at best a distraction and at worst a spiritual manipulation.
The perfect revelation of God’s love is Jesus. In the pages of Scripture, Jesus makes God’s mission clear. He is bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.
Look, for instance, at Matthew’s account of Jesus receiving John’s baptism of repentance. (Matthew 3:13-17)
When Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, the heavens open to him. A voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” In Mark’s account, the voice is speaking to Jesus. According the Matthew, however, we’re all getting that divine message.
In Jesus, the heavens bend low not merely to touch the earth but to saturate it. At the very beginning of his ministry Jesus is already answering the prayer that he will eventually teach his disciples:“Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus is more than a gifted teacher and a bold prophet. Jesus is God incarnate. Fully human and fully divine. In the Incarnation God infuses the earthly with the heavenly.
Let me be clear. God is still God. We are still frail, finite creatures. This is not pantheism.
But in Jesus we participate in the divine life. We are who we most truly are in our relationship with God. In Jesus, we become the children of God. The fully realized image of God. Eventually.
We can think about God on analogy with water.
Water comprises up to 60% of our bodies as a whole. The percentage is even higher in our brains and our lungs, 73% and 83% respectively.
So, water resides in the depths of our tissues, our blood, and our bones. Water is not a separate limb or organ in our body. No one would point to another person and call her a body of water. But without water we simply wouldn’t exist. We would collapse into lifeless dust.
Some have explained Baptism as a bath that washes away our sins. But I invite you to think of placing a dry sponge under running water at your sink.
The hard, rough block in your hand readily absorbs the water. It increases in size and becomes soft and malleable. Crucially, the sponge grows in its ability to clean things as it becomes saturated. A hard, dry sponge doesn’t clean pots and pans or wipe counters very effectively.
From the beginning, God made us for this kind of intimacy with our Maker. In Jesus, God enters our lives and transforms us. We become who and what we were always meant to be.
So as it turns out, Jesus is about repentance. Only, what he (and John the Baptist) meant by this bears no resemblance to that ghastly sign along US 165. To repent is to be transformed in your mind, your soul, and your heart by the abiding presence of Christ.
Christ stretches us to overcome prejudices handed down to us in our childhood, to forgive those who injure us, and to respond to the needs of strangers who give us the creeps.
We strain to recognize the dignity of every human being, even when those humans beings refuse to respect the divinely-given dignity in us or in themselves. When someone seeks to utterly undo us, our urge to obliterate the threat collides with Christ’s command to love our enemies.
Neither billboards, nor television spots, nor memes that go viral on social media can adequately convey the message of God’s transforming love. Only frail, imperfect hands and bruised, fragile hearts can do it. In other words, it’s up to you and me.
But we are not on our own. The Kingdom has come near. It courses through our veins and resides in our very bones.